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A Lent Like No Other - Penance in a Pandemic

By Margaret McCahill, M.D.
Published in Lent & Spirituality
April 02, 2021
3 min read
A Lent Like No Other - Penance in a Pandemic

This blog begins our Lent 2021 series of reflections on the Franciscan Intellectual-Spiritual Tradition by a variety of women and men Franciscans.

We are in the season of Lent 2021, and many, perhaps most of us, feel very uneasy. We have been living through a pandemic for more than a year now; most of us know someone who has suffered from COVID-19, and perhaps we have family members and friends who have died from it. Many of our neighbors have lost their jobs; climate change has caused storms, floods, and wildfires around the world; many of our schools and gathering places are closed, and painfully, even our churches are impacted by modified rules about gathering for Mass or they may be closed all together. Public discourse can be unkind as both our national body politic and even our Roman Catholic Church have become sadly polarized. Given all of this, we do not know when we will ever get back to “normal life,” and we wonder, will things get even worse? 

We are in the season of Lent 2021, a Lent like no other.    

We have lived through Lent before, and we remember that Lent calls for extra attention to prayer, fasting, and performing acts of charity and good works for others. It is a time of “penance.” In the Franciscan view of that term, penance is the process of turning ever closer to God and turning away from all that is not of God, that is, turning away from sin. We are called to do penance daily, to turn away from sin and to turn closer toward God. And how do we keep focused on that kind of daily penance and the prayer and charitable works that we would do in a “normal” Lenten season? It might be harder this year. 

We are in the season of Lent 2021, a Lent like no other.   

We might be afraid of what is happening in our world; there are things that may threaten our livelihood and safety, and we might feel worried about our lack of understanding of what is going on with the pandemic, for example. We might feel frustrated and anxious as we try to ensure that the basic needs of our families are provided for. We might feel frustrated and angry as we try to obtain COVID-19 immunizations for ourselves and our family members, and we might feel envious of friends and neighbors who were somehow able to get theirs first. All these concerns can leave us feeling constant anxiety, restlessness, and perhaps even feeling cynical, with a hardness of heart.

We are in the season of Lent 2021, a Lent like no other. We could use some extra help this time.

Saint Francis of Assisi lived in turbulent times, and he sought to bring the Lord’s peace to all who struggled with fear, anxiety, anger, impatience, greed, restlessness, vulnerability, and hardness of heart, among other things. Saint Francis advised his followers to greet everyone, as he did himself: “The Lord revealed a greeting to me that we should say ‘May the Lord give you peace.’”

Among the writings of Saint Francis, we find “The Admonitions,” a manuscript that contains twenty-eight directives from Francis to those who followed him. Reflection on Admonition XXVII may assist us as we pray during Lent 2021, aspiring to daily penance in a Franciscan way and seeking the Lord’s peace that Saint Francis wished for everyone.

Let us prayerfully reflect on Admonition XXVII, hearing the words of Saint Francis of Assisi directed to us during this Lenten season of 2021:

Admonition XXVII: Virtue Puts Vice to Flight

  1. Where there is charity and wisdom,
    there is neither fear nor ignorance.
  2. Where there is patience and humility,
    there is neither anger nor disturbance.
  3. Where there is poverty with joy,
    there is neither greed nor avarice.
  4. Where there is rest and meditation,
    there is neither anxiety nor restlessness.
  5. Where there is fear of the Lord to guard an entrance,
    there the enemy cannot have a place to enter.
Margaret McCahill, M.D.

Margaret McCahill, M.D.

Dr. McCahill is board certified in both family medicine and psychiatry, and she practiced both specialties simultaneously for over 20 years as a full-time faculty member at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, where she taught health-care trainees in multiple disciplines in both classroom and clinical settings. Her clinical practice has emphasized health care for those with limited access to care; those who are homeless and/or living in poverty, and for this work she was awarded the Medical Board of California’s “Physician Humanitarian Award” in 2008. She has taught classes on the importance of spirituality in health care for students at the University of San Diego, The Franciscan School of Theology, and UCSD School of Medicine. Dr. McCahill is a 2016 graduate of the Franciscan School of Theology and is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. Dr. McCahill and her husband have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary; they have two adult children and six grandchildren.


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